Home is the place where, when you have to go there

January 31st, 2011

I have a friend who works in Alexandria, Egypt. She used to live in Switzerland but moved several years ago. She actually left Switzerland when I was pregnant with the Small Boy, so it’s been quite some time. We have seen each other a few times since then, when she has been in Switzerland on a vacation or taking care of some business that she still has here; we email a few times a year but we are both poor correspondents and time and distance have weakened our friendship.

I sent her an email last week, not knowing what if any internet access she might have, simply saying I hope things were calm by her and that she stays safe. I haven’t heard anything back. Her employer maintains a Facebook page, which they updated on January 24th to say that they would be closed the following day. It hasn’t been updated since. I can well imagine that she only had internet access through work in the first place. It would meet her needs – she is a fairly unplugged person – and she moves often enough that I can imagine she wouldn’t bother with the hassle of finding a service provider as long as she knew she could use computers at work on her private time. So if she’s not going in to work, she is probably unplugged. I am not overly concerned about her physical safety, it’s not as if I fear for her actual life, but I am worried about how she is doing and if her neighborhood is calm or not.

I sent out a request for information on Twitter – does anybody have any information about the foreign staff of this employer? Through the miracle of re-tweeting, somebody actually associated with the place, albeit in a loose way, sent me a message that US staff are being sent home. Which brings me after a long introduction to the point: this friend of mine is a US citizen but hasn’t lived in the US for fifteen years. If she shows up at the airport or Embassy wishing to be evacuated, she’s got her passport and they’ll take care of her (and it’s scenarios like this that make R say, “Sometimes a US passport is a handy thing to have”), but where will she go? She lives in Egypt. Prior to that she lived in Asia and South-East Asia, and prior to that she lived in Switzerland. Prior to that, she lived in the Netherlands. To my knowledge, the last time she was in the US was simply to attend a job fair that landed her the Alexandria job.

There are expats like me, who either through marriage or long-term employment form a bond with the new country. If I had to get evacuated from an emergency zone I’d wave my US passport for all it was worth, and then make my way, with the boys, back to Switzerland. We’d try to get passportless R to be allowed to come with, on the basis of being the father of two minor US citizens, but we’ve already agreed that if push comes to shove I’d cut him and his Swiss passport lose to get the boys to safety and he’d follow when he could. (The US is simply better equipped to evacuate its citizens than Switzerland, and even R with all his pride in his Swiss military admits it.) But then there are expats like my friend who move a lot, following jobs or adventure or change or whatever it is that calls a person to move countries every few years. She’s got the passport, and if she wants to leave – which is an open question, actually – she’ll be taken care of, but then what? I sometimes envy her expat adventures and the amazing vacations she has taken all over South-East Asia, the freedom to change jobs and countries when she feels like it, but then what? After all the exploring and the traveling, now, when she might get evacuated – to where? To whom?

How rooted are you? (This might apply especially to my expat readers, but not exclusively). A line from Robert Frost’s “The Death of the Hired Man” comes to mind:

“Home is the place where, when you have to go there
They have to take you in.”

I’m wondering what my friend will do, where she will go, who will take her in. And remembering that the ties that sometimes feel like they are holding me back are also the ties that root me, that link me to the world, that give me a safe place from which to venture forth and a port to which I can return.

8 Responses to “Home is the place where, when you have to go there”

  1. Claudia on January 31, 2011 5:04 pm

    I hope also that your friend is alright.

    I’ve been pondering (again again) this line of thinking lately. For me, home is primarily where my people are. There are two core groups of people: first, my husband and daughter. I want to be with them above all others. Next is my brother and my best friend, both of whom live in Portland, OR, and where I would go if I had nowhere to go otherwise. It’s also where I grew up, but I am more attached to San Francisco as far as physical localities go.

    I will also forever keep my U.S. passport and wave it when it can bail me out of a pickle!

  2. Bethany on January 31, 2011 5:45 pm

    I’ve been thinking of this lately… though morbidly (and who knows what brought this line of thinking on), wondering where I would choose to live if my husband were to pass away. Would I make the effort to continue carving out a life in our adopted country, or would I head back to the land I chose to leave? I honestly don’t know. My deepest roots are my husband and daughters; my sense of home is grounded in them. I have only lived in Italy for 3 1/2 years though, so if its permanence in my mind is already on par with that of the U.S., I may have a more definitive answer before long.

  3. Jennifer on January 31, 2011 5:51 pm

    @ Bethany – I think about that too. Why would I stay here if R died? But it’s my boys’ home. How could I leave and take them away from everything they know at the worst moment of their lives? I also wonder where I want to be buried/scattered. I worry that I won’t be allowed to be interred in Switzerland if I die before I get my passport.

    I think expat-ism breeds a certain necessary morbidity.

  4. Gretchen on February 1, 2011 5:26 am

    A friend of mine is from California and moved to the Zurich area with her Swiss husband about 15 years ago. He tragically died from a motorcycle accident 3 years ago. She immediately said she was moving back to California. But her children were nearly done with their education and they asked her to stay until they had graduated as they didn’t want to start a new school as teenagers. When her youngest graduated this past year, the children told her they didn’t want to leave and they didn’t want her to leave. She is resigned that Switzerland is now her permanent home. That weighed heavily on me while we were deciding whether to stay or not. I did not want my children to view Switzerland as “home” because I knew I never would and I did not want to be tied to the country indefinitely.

    By the way, just read the Switzerland has advised its citizens either living or traveling in Egypt to leave as soon as possible. They will have to make their own way, but they were requested to let the Swiss Embassy in Cairo know of their plans. Perhaps to give the Swiss Embassy staff tips on how to get out themselves?

  5. Jennifer on February 1, 2011 7:48 am

    My information, sketchy indeed, is that the Swiss and the Austrians have a Military Attache at the airport in Cairo and that Swiss and Austrians have been among the speedier to get out of the country. But rumors abound.

    Your friend’s children are nearly adults. She can leave in just a few more years.

  6. beyond on February 2, 2011 11:23 am

    i wonder myself.i think,i will go where my husband and kids are.but i also think about what will happen if something happens to my husband.in the case of other commentators,you can go back to US and your life style wont be drastically different.but what about me,a pakistani woman from a small undeveloped city of pakistan.my life style will take a 180 turn.so i think and i think;)

  7. Jennifer on February 9, 2011 8:13 pm

    I have heard from my friend – the internet is back. She is staying put for now with several work colleagues in what so far has been a safe and quiet neighborhood.

    Beyond – Welcome! where are you living now? In Pakistan?

  8. beyond on February 26, 2011 11:55 pm

    i live in germany and thanks:)

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